Chapter 23

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"What the hell do you think you're doing?" comes a voice from somewhere out of sight.

It's not Herman's voice, though. This one is deeper, more masculine. Not nearly as acid-fried. But it's just as out of place for somewhere like a dope house. There's a ring of tired authority in the clarity of the words that cuts through the stench of burning weed. Reminds Zandra of a drill sergeant after a Scotch and a sedative.

The man with the gun turns and shouts back, "There's someone here."

"You dumb shit, I know that. But how to you think firing a gun is going to do us any good in a neighborhood where the houses are 15 feet apart?" the voice says.

Zandra squeezes the rubber grips Herman slid and glued onto the handle of the lawnmower knife. Takes the stress much better than the old paracord wrap did before. The bones in her hand grind along with her teeth, urging for a reason to lunge forward and plant the blade into one of the fuckers in front of her. It's the only thing this much adrenalin can allow her to do. She fights pure instinct just to remain in place.

"Who's that talking?" Zandra says, calling out to the voice.

Whoever is there doesn't take her seriously enough to change the conversation.

"Put that gun down, bro," the voice says, still talking to the man with the gun. "It ain't loaded anyway."

The man lifts the pistol's aim off of Zandra. He points it to his face, pulls the trigger. Click.

"What the fuck, man? Why'd you give me an empty gun? You told me it was loaded," the man says. He turns toward the voice, facing away from Zandra.

"Do you really think I'd give you a loaded gun? I just wanted you to stop asking me for one," the voice says.

They're distracted. Go. Now.

Months ago, leaping forward with as much vigor as Zandra exhibits now would've collapsed before it started under her bad ankle. Now, however, the only thing wobbling under pressure is the breath of the man with the gun. The two stoners at the counter rush their slow retreat into a spring, barreling out of the kitchen and into the living room.

"You like how this feels?" Zandra says, her left hand yanking back a fistful of the man's long hair while the right presses the spine of the blade against his throat. Keeping the sharp edge away from the man's vitals isn't a mistake. She doesn't want to kill him and the edge will slice open any attempts to wrestle the knife away. The effect is all the same anyway.

"What's your problem, bitch?" the man says.

Zandra leans in so close to the man's ear that she nearly bites his lobe off when she says, "I asked you a question."

Don't underestimate me. Look what happened when you turned away from me.

The voice gets a little closer, but it's still out of view. "Hey, what's going on?"

"Typewriters? What?" the man says, choking. He looks to the stoners in the living room for help, but they can only gawk.

"Your loser friends aren't going to help you answer my question," Zandra says, the malice in her voice packaged into a tiny bee buzzing in the man's ear. "Where. Do. You. Keep. Your. Typewriters. Around. Here. Question mark."

"A little help here," the man says, calling out to the voice now.

Now able to see into the living room, Zandra traces the sound of slow, methodical footsteps to a hallway illuminated by a spear of blue light from somewhere else in the house. She's under pressure, but her mind still logs the pattern of the stains in the carpet, the make of the shitty furniture, the show playing on the muted television and the crisp leaves surrounding a dead hibiscus in a large pot in one corner.

Who buys a hibiscus plant in Wisconsin and puts it in a dope house?

It's irrelevant, but she can't help herself anymore than she can count the number of footsteps approaching her. The darkness conceals the identity of the man as he stops at the edge of the living room. Only a pair of thick work boots is visible. They're unscathed by the rigors of the work they're supposed to endure.

Show off.

"Who the hell are you?" the man in the hallway says.

Zandra refocuses. "I want to know where you keep your typewriter," she says.

The boots shuffle in position. "Why?"

"Because someone here bought a typewriter from a thrift store that belongs to me. It was stolen and pawned. I want it back," Zandra says. It's a flimsy cover story, but she wasn't too concerned about making it airtight when she came up with it earlier, especially not when she keeps a lawnmower knife up her sleeve.

"You went through all this trouble for a typewriter?" the voice says and pauses. "I don't think so, Zandra."

He knows my name. A lot of people do, but this seems different.

Zandra doubles down on her hunch.

"I don't think it was too much trouble at all, Dvorak," she says, using the nickname. If he's in on the blackmail scheme, he'll know what it means.

"I see you've paid close attention to my letters," Dvorak says, everything but his boots still hidden in the dark. "Very good, Zandra. You're every bit as insightful as they say you are."

You're going to find out exactly how insightful I can get in a minute, asshole.

"How nice to meet you," Zandra says. "I apologize about the knife and your little friend here. I meant for this blade to be up against your neck."

Dvorak chuckles. "We have so much to talk about. Why don't you put the knife down and we'll chat, hmmm?"

"How about you go fuck yourself? We can settle this right here," Zandra says, shoring up her grip on the man's hair.

"Suit yourself."

In the intensity of the moment, Zandra didn't notice the stoners from the porch come in through the open back door. Two pairs of rough hands lift her up and away from the man with long hair. She kicks and squirms, but they rush her into the living room and down the dark hallway. Someone opens a door and steps aside, revealing a flight of stairs leading to a basement.

"Herman," Zandra says, lashing out with her voice and the knife. "Herman, come quick."

But Herman is too far away to hear her cries for help. What she hears instead is Dvorak's voice saying, "Send her down."

Zandra's still focused enough to throw the knife ahead of her as her body is tossed down the stairs. She doesn't want to roll onto the blade during her violent descent. It's only a dozen or so steps, but it feels like tumbling down the Grand Canyon. Her frame bends to the will of the treads' unforgiving angles, and she can practically hear her blood rushing to pool into bruises.

Looking up from a plank of wood that makes up the dark landing, Zandra sees several bodies looking down at her eclipse the dim, blue light upstairs.

"OK, boys. Let's get to work," Dvorak says.

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